“Thinking Deeply about What Is Essential:" Kaywin Feldman on Leading the Nation’s Museum in Uncertain Times

mid-length portrait Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Courtesy of the National Gallery.

The National Gallery of Art director shares her thoughts on the role of culture in times of crisis and how to make a great institution even more significant to an increasingly diverse America.

Two years ago, when she was first approached for the job of director of the National Gallery of Art, Kaywin Feldman declined.  An experienced leader who had seen arts institutions through significant periods of change, Feldman was concerned that her expertise in change-management might not be the right fit for a place so steeped in tradition as the National Gallery.  But the institution, founded in 1937 by Andrew W. Mellon, kept calling, and in March 2019, Feldman became the first woman to lead the National Gallery.  She arrived in Washington, DC, after more than a decade as director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, known as Mia, where she is credited with raising attendance and the museum’s profile through audience-focused programming.

Recently, Feldman spoke with us about her first year on the job, serving the national community, and how in times of crisis, art allows us to “feel the power of our shared humanity.”

museum facadeThe National Gallery of Art (East Wing). Source: iStockphoto.
"I believe profoundly in the resilient power of the arts to enrich peoples’ lives, in good times and bad."

This month is the one-year mark since your appointment at the National Gallery of Art.  How does leading the nation’s museum differ from your past leadership experiences at Mia and elsewhere?
The scale and complexity of the National Gallery certainly present fresh leadership challenges for me, as does working for a federal institution.  My first year has been a fascinating civics lesson in federal appropriations and budgeting, working with Congress, and partnering with other federal agencies.  I am grateful to the Gallery staff for all the time and effort they have invested in my education.

Your second year has begun with an unexpected challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic.  What is the role of arts and culture during times like these?
I am thinking deeply about what is essential.  Of course, at the very top of the list are the health and safety of Gallery staff, contractors, and volunteers, but not far behind that is art.  In experiencing art and creativity, we feel the power of our shared humanity.  I believe profoundly in the resilient power of the arts to enrich peoples’ lives, in good times and bad.  Some of the world’s greatest art was created during times of crisis, and many such works are found within the Gallery’s walls.  I have nothing but optimism when I think about the ability of American museums to serve their communities, whatever comes our way.

How can audiences engage with the Gallery while the museum is closed to visitors?
We are making efforts to bring our collections and programs to audiences around the world by expanding the content we offer across our digital platforms and we have created a list of ten digital education resources that we hope will support parents, children, teachers, students, and care partners at home.  Gallery tours and close views of works on our social-media channels allow for a visit to the Gallery from anywhere, at any time.

Andrew W. Mellon, who founded the National Gallery, believed that the United States should have an art museum that would benefit the public. The US has evolved significantly since the Gallery was created. Who do you envision as the museum’s public?
I’ve run three other museums, and all were focused on community.  When considering the move to the National Gallery, I hesitated because I wasn’t sure I’d find that sense of connection at a large institution that serves all of the American people.  When I pointed this out to a mentor [at Mia], he said, “Yes—but then the entire nation becomes your community; what does that look like?”  My heart started to race and my perspective on the opportunity quickly changed.  And, as the Gallery always has been, we are committed to engaging Washington-area residents.  One of the great things about DC museums being free is that you can visit again and again without constraints.  For a kid to be able to walk in and sit with a favorite painting for 10 minutes—that’s really compelling.

Thinking about the nation being your community—that also aligns with Andrew Mellon’s democratic ideals.  What else about Mellon’s original vision is meaningful to you?
Andrew Mellon amassed his great collection with the idea of a national gallery in mind. He wrote to President Roosevelt [in 1936], and offered to pay for a building and to give his collection. He didn’t want to call it the Mellon Museum.  The Gallery really is a democratic institution.  It can’t be bought.  Donors can’t name a room after themselves.  He was very deliberate about that, and I admire the forethought.

Press conference sceneAndrew W. Mellon's son Paul speaking at the opening of the National Gallery of Art (original West Building) in 1941. Courtesy of the National Gallery.

Last fall you visited the Mellon offices, and in your conversation with Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander, you spoke of the “very pressing need” to make sure that the Gallery’s American art and contemporary art collections fully represent America, adding: “At the moment, they do not.”  How will you begin the process of change? 
One of my priorities is to continue to grow the collection and explore how we can both reflect and attract the nation. To do this, we need to diversify our staff, collection, program, and audience—growth in each area needs to happen simultaneously.  This great institution will become even more significant by representing the expansive diversity of the American people.    

Speaking on a panel recently about women and leadership at the Brooklyn Museum, you expressed concern that the museum field might be becoming too female.  The Mellon Foundation’s 2015 museum demographic survey showed that more women were becoming heads of art museums, but at smaller museums with smaller budgets, while the number of women of color and people of color who lead museums remains low.  What does “diversity” mean to you?
My concern over our profession becoming “pink collar” is a reflection of my belief that we are stronger through greater diversity.  I also have concerns because multiple studies have shown that work done primarily by women is simply not as highly valued as that of men.  Studies show that when substantial numbers of women enter a field, the pay declines.  In a recent report from [think tank] Third Way, economist Emily Liner notes that of the 30 highest-paid museum jobs, men dominate the profession, while women hold 23 of the 30 lowest-paid jobs.  Continued gender bias is also one of the main reasons there are still so few women running major museums in America.  I’ve been the first woman director at three of the four museums that I’ve run, but I like to point out that I’m the last first woman director of those institutions.  So, it’s changing.

Can you share any other plans or projects that have launched in your first year in Washington?
I am excited to be exploring with our staff the development of a visionary and compelling strategic plan.  We have several initiatives in the works that are still to be announced, but I know that a key direction will focus on how we might further magnify our work so that we can have a greater impact on the nation.  We are also working to solidify our brand so that we can do an even better job communicating who we are today.  I always like quoting Paul Mellon, who upon the opening of the West Building in 1941 stated, “For it was my father’s hope, and it is ours, that the National Gallery would become not a static but a living institution, growing in usefulness and importance to artists, scholars, and the general public.”